Don't Put Down Your Flag: America in Flux

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being an emcee in a hip-hop band sometimes feels like being an irresponsible substitute teacher. One stands in front of groups of teenagers encouraging them to "make some noise" and they shout obscenities in approval. Occasionally things get out of control and intervention is required.

Such was the case at a recent performance in Chicago. As we railed against the Iraq war and CIA-backed assassinations, the crowd swirled in an energetic mosh pit. Several songs into our set, a group of young people began chanting.

"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Despite the fact that our music includes phrases like "New American Insurgent" and our promotional artwork prominently features American flag bandanas, the chant took me by surprise. The last time I'd heard it had been just after September 11th when a candlelight vigil had given way to a chorus of "USA's" and accompanying calls for vengeance. An audience who embraced this sort of blind patriotism clearly did not understand our message. Intervention was needed.

"I want to say something" I said.

"I see a lot of you have American flag bandanas like the ones we wear on our album cover. There's something you need to understand about what those represent. It is NOT the flag of genocide, slavery, and war. It is not the flag of the old America. It is the flag of the other America, of all of those who struggled against such oppression."

There were cheers.

"It is the flag of a new America that we are going to build together. The poet Langston Hughes wrote 'America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath -America Will Be'. This is the flag of the America that will be."

The crowd went wild with reassuring applause, and for a moment I felt reassured. Then they resumed chanting, "U-S-A! U-S-A...."

Discovering Patriotism

Growing up in a liberal family during the apathetic '90s, there was a total disconnect from the flag. It was neither cool nor especially relevant. My aloofness matured into an aversion as I entered college and learned more about US foreign policy. Then, during the leadup to the invasion of Iraq, I was among those anti-war organizers who utilized the flag during marches and rallies. Amidst the us-them uberpatriotism that policed the post-911 America psyche, this was a pragmatic way for peacemongers to complicate the categories. Only now, after several years witnessing the incorporation of patriotic imagery into progressive movements (most notably in the immigrants' rights marches), have I come to embrace the flag with more sincerity. My patriotism is something I can describe as a process of critical engagement, in which the other America struggles with the old America to make it new.

But what about these kids in Chicago? Adolescents or younger at the time of the September 11th attacks, their sense of national identity has formed against the backdrop of the Bush Administration, the "War on Terror" and the emergence of Barack Obama's insurgent political campaign. What does patriotism mean to them? Has the political landscape evolved so much that what took me seven years to discover took them 30 seconds? Have our "Peace Is Patriotic" bumper stickers been THAT effective?

To an extent, yes. This decade's antiwar movement failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq, but we have helped to bring about a shift in consciousness about what it means to love one's country. For evidence, look no further than Obama himself. His opposition to the Iraq invasion, which in 2002 was seen as a political liability, became his biggest asset 5 years later. Now, with public opinion solidly against both the war and the Bush administration, Obama is being welcomed both domestically and abroad as the face of a new America.

This is cause for celebration, to be sure. But we must not get lost in the symbolism. Whether or not Obama wears a flag pin is, after all, of little consequence to Afghan civilians killed by American bombs. How do we make sure that the "change" we elect is more than cosmetic, that a shift in our national self-conception translates into a policy shift? How do we take a symbol that has represented violence and authentically transform it into a symbol of peace?

Redefining Symbols

In "Don't Put Down Your Flag", rapper/revolutionary M-1 of Dead Prez addresses gang members and advocates redefining gang symbolism rather than abandoning it.

"So what if we just tied our flags together?
And put away our differences forever?....
[because we're] from the same family line
now I'm not trying to say don't ride or don't bang
but use new eyes when you're looking at the game
like no slanging around the babies
and makin sure they get to school safely...
...when your kids start saying 'that's gangsta'
it was because they kept their granny outa danger"

Rather than challenging people to reject their flags, he appeals to the values (familial ties, self-defense, financial empowerment) that he believes are the ultimate source of meaning for those who wave them. He then calls for a change in behavior based on those values in order to reduce (though not eliminate) the violence waged in their name.

A similar approach is taking shape across the political spectrum. Through aggressive outreach and public witness, people like Evangelical leader Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine have brought nuance and depth to the national conversation about faith, freeing "Christianity" from the clutches of the Religious Right. From the Iraq Veterans Against the War to Colin Powell himself, military servicepeople are stepping forward to challenge the notion that Republicans hold any sort of monopoly on caring for our troops. Progressive Jewish leaders have come together to form "J-Street" a family of organizations designed to "mobilize political support for a new direction in American policy in the Middle East." "Pro Christian" "Pro-military" and "Pro-Israel" are just three of the terms whose definition is in flux.

The Other America

For the "Don't Put Down Your Flag" approach to lead to real change, we must redefine "Pro-America" in a way that that appeals to basic democratic principles and reduces our violent behavior. This means that those of us who have seen ourselves as "the other America" must take the drivers' seat, and engage those around us in a discussion about our core values. We must talk honestly and without defensiveness about the violence that has been perpetrated in our name in both recent history and throughout the past century (a basic knowledge of CIA overthrows in places like Iran and Latin America will help people to understand those regions today). As Obama's much-touted core constituencies, African Americans of all ages and young people of all races may be especially well-positioned to engage in this conversation.

The young people at our show represent a generation eager to believe that our flag could represent an entirely different set of values from what they've seen the last 8 years. They wear the flag because they are inspired by the possibility that the "Change" is more than a slogan. They are ready to serve something larger than themselves, and this excitement is infectious. Introducing his song "Black President", Nas sums up these hopes, proclaiming "Out with the old America, in with the new!"

Do They Get It?

About a month after the Chicago performance I was sitting with my bandmates in the Mile High Stadium in our hometown of Denver, waiting for Barack Obama to give his acceptance speech. We'd begun the week by performing for the DNC welcome party and three days later had joined Rage Against the Machine for a concert in support of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. After the show, 7,000 young people had marched to the Pepsi center to call on Obama and the Democrats to make good on their antiwar rhetoric. With the previous day's outspoken criticism fresh in our minds, we sat surrounded by 80,000 Democrats waving American flags. It was a convincing display of patriotism that bode well for the campaign's appeal to mainstream America. I wondered how many other people in the audience had been in the streets the day before. As Obama took the convention floor and declared "Enough" to Bush's policies, it was easy to imagine that we were a new generation witnessing the birth of a new nation. Then a chant sounded out from the convention floor.

"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

I thought back to the performance in Chicago and wondered again which America the crowd was celebrating. The old America? The other America? A new America? Under an Obama Presidency, which one does the flag represent?

The answer will depend on what we do next.